Basking in the Majesty of Yosemite

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

There are many beautiful places in this world. And there are several sights that can take your breath away. But there are few, precious few, places that are so vast and extraordinary that you feel you've stepped into something surreal.

Yosemite National Park is one of those rare places.

For the photographer, the challenge here can be formidable:  How can you capture the true grandeur and majesty of a park that's the size of Rhode Island? How can you bring a fresh perspective to a place that's visited by 4 million people every year?  Most importantly, how can you capture -- through your lens and through the final processing of your images -- the way Yosemite makes you FEEL?

For me, I've found it's good to leave ample room in my camera bag for a sense of childlike wonder.  Like a mesmerized kid in a giant circus tent, I wanted to crane my neck up, down, 360 degrees all around to savor the majesty of Yosemite. While some folks were totally focused on the views directly in front of them, I didn't want to miss the spectacular show that was taking place up in the sky ... or down at my feet.

I've found that it's also helpful to pack a bit of patience in my bag. While others snapped a quick picture of this creek and hurried across the bridge, I set up a tripod and took my time composing this scene.  I also put a neutral density filter on the lens, reducing the amount of light passing through it. That's how I was able to shoot a three-second exposure in bright daylight, rendering the water as a silky, flowing stream.

While it's nice to think big -- capturing the broad sweeping panoramic views that show the immense scale of Yosemite -- I also like to think small.  This means finding interesting little details that others might overlook.  In this case, I found myself  intrigued by the interplay of a lone tree against the face of a cliff.

When I stood out in the open clearing, I had a decent shot of the falls. But it felt a bit ordinary, like a typical snapshot. When I moved farther back into the woods, I was greeted with a playful show of vertical lines:  trees, falls, light, shadow. This created a nice framing device for the falls in the distance.

Landscape photographers usually avoid including people in the scene. But in this case, I thought it was interesting to show the young hiker leaning over the railing to shoot the gorge below.

Ironically, a nearby sign read:  "Is a photo worth dying for? Visitors have fallen to their deaths by going behind the railings." 

Two of the strongest words in the English language are "What if ...?"

I've sometimes taken photos of textured surfaces and blended those textures with other photos to create interesting effects. When we were hiking at Yosemite, my wife asked "What if you combined the rough texture of the rocks with a wider landscape shot?"

Layering Yosemite onto Yosemite.  I like it.

Last but not least, a word about mood -- how you want your final image to look.  It's something Ansel Adams was deeply attuned to when he placed a deep-red filter over his lens, turning the pale sky in his black-and-white masterpiece photo of Half Dome into a dramatic inky black. It was not a literal interpretation of the scene, but it captured how he FELT when standing before the awesome monolith.

Above you'll see a standard color processing of one of my Yosemite photos.  It's sweet and pretty like a postcard -- but it conveys nothing of what I felt while surrounded by this view. Next to the color version, you'll see a black-and-white version where I applied the equivalent of Ansel Adams' deep-red filter. 

My wife and I both agreed that the black-and-white version was stronger -- but it felt like an attempt to clone an Adams photo of Yosemite.

Again, my wife asked an interesting question:  Is there any way to combine the best of both versions?

Her question sent me back to work, experimenting with different techniques. I ended up finding a way to use both exposures, creating a finished look that I call Yosemite Bold -- a style which I applied to several of my Yosemite photos.

Is this how the scene looked to my naked eye? No.  Is this how Yosemite made me feel? Absolutely.

A special thanks

I'd be remiss not to mention the most beautiful site in Yosemite:  my wife Bonnie, who's my best friend, my partner, my most ardent supporter and my favorite sounding board for honest opinions and critique.

Want to see more of Yosemite?

Click on this gallery to see more photos from our two-day visit last October. We plan to return this year to explore more of this national treasure.

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~ Paul